Category: movies

Movie Review: Zombeavers

Movie Review: Zombeavers

ZOMBEAVERS follows a direct line of descent from such 1950s films as THE KILLER SHREWS and ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, although I doubt that the makers of this movie have seen them unless they are also fans of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Instead, it’s more likely that they were inspired by the tributes to such films made by those who grew up with them, such as Ron Underwood’s TREMORS, Fred Dekker’s NIGHT OF THE CREEPS and especially, Joe Dante’s oeuvre, Continue reading “Movie Review: Zombeavers”

Classic Horror As It Was Meant To Be Seen.

Classic Horror As It Was Meant To Be Seen.

Two years ago, Cineplex Odeon played a pair of Universal horror classics, Tod Browning’s DRACULA and James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN, as part of its Classic Film Series. While I can watch Whale’s film (and the rest of his horror output) countless times without exhaustion, Browning’s version of the Bram Stoker novel had always been for me and many others quite a chore to watch. Made while the film industry was still undergoing growing pains in the transition to sound, it always seemed  too slow and static, and with much of the action offscreen, is reminiscent at times of a filmed stage play (which it in essence actually was) or even a radio play, if you close your eyes. Continue reading “Classic Horror As It Was Meant To Be Seen.”

I LOATHED LUCY

I LOATHED LUCY

Quick, what does this remind you of? Lucy is a naïve American college student living in Hong Kong, emotionally fragile and seemingly none too bright, who has made the wrong sort of boyfriend, the sort who “innocently” asks you to deliver a briefcase to some fellows who “just happen” to be some big-time Asian drug dealers. And they don’t just take the briefcase, no siree, Continue reading “I LOATHED LUCY”

Interview: Godzilla Fan and Writer Armand Vaquer

Interview: Godzilla Fan and Writer Armand Vaquer

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With the new Godzilla film scorching up the box office and also proving to be a surprising critical hit as well, we thought this was a good time to consult an expert in the field. Armand Vaquer, author of The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide to Japan, has long been a fan of Godzilla and other Japanese giant monsters, and has been active in G-fandom for years. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his time in fandom and shed some light on an often-misunderstood genre and fan subculture.

 

1.Thanks for granting us this interview Armand! Tell us a little first about your own history with Godzilla and your involvement with Japanese fantastic film fandom.
Well, the first time I saw Godzilla was in 1962 when Los Angeles station KHJ-TV Channel 9 ran “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” one afternoon. I was playing outside on our front porch with a friend and his mother yelled from across the fence that Godzilla was coming on television. So he ran off. My mom was standing at the door and I asked her what Godzilla was and she told me that he’s a big dinosaur. That interested me, so I went in and watched it and was hooked. Then, a year later, several friends and I were taken by my parents to see “King Kong vs. Godzilla” at the theater. Funny thing, a few years before she died, my mom told me that they took me to the drive-in to see “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” when I was two years old (that would be 1956). I have no memory of that.
I wrote for G-Fan magazine for nine years, mainly about landmarks and locations used in the movies. I also worked on different projects such as “Godzilla Week” in 2000, wrote Rick Dee’s narrative for the Godzilla float at the 2004 Hollywood Christmas Parade and the History of Godzilla speech for Johnny Grant for the Walk of Fame Dedication. The last two were at the request of Toho. I also organized the “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” plaque at the former location of the studio where Raymond Burr was filmed. It is now an elementary school and the plaque is at the main entrance.
2.The term kaiju (like “steampunk”) gets frequently misinterpreted by those who are aware of the genre but unfamiliar with it; it frequently gets stretched and distorted to refer to any sort of giant monster film regardless of country of origin or any live-action science fiction film or TV show from Japan. For the benefit of our readers, can you explain the kaiju genre to them and how it should be distinguished from the broader genre of tokusatsu?
Well, tokusatsu generally means live-action special effects films of different genres shown on television or theatrically, including kaiju and super-heroes originating from Japan. Kaiju means literally strange creature. Daikaiju just means big strange creature.
3.You’re also the author of The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide to Japan. Tell us a little about this book, and how readers should use it.
The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide To Japan is a travel guide tailored to fans of kaiju movies (Godzilla, Gamera, etc.) to provide information on the locations and landmarks used in the movies and where they are, how to get there and what other attractions are nearby of interest. There’s some Ultraman places of interest as well in the book. Where available, I also included some accommodation places. It can be used either as a reference book on what locations and landmarks were used and what movies they appeared in. It is available in print form or as an ebook at Amazon’s Kindle Store. I will be publishing a revised second edition sometime next year. Work has already begun on it.
Many people have written to me that they found it very useful when they were on vacation in Japan.

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4. Our readers will undoubtedly be very interested to read about your lifelong political work as well; you’ve had quite a fascinating career! Have there been any interesting moments where your political and fan work coincided?
I was on three California national convention delegations for Ronald Reagan (1976, 1980 and 1984) and an area chairman for the Reagan campaigns. My political work tapered off when I got married and when my daughter was born. But the political contacts I have came in handy in getting the “Godzilla Week” and “Godzilla Month” proclamations through the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through. I’ve known Supervisor Michael Antonovich since the 1970s and worked with him on the proclamations. He’s a big fanboy himself, so it was easy to get his help.
I worked as a field representative to Assemblyman Paul T. Bannai, the first Japanese-American to be elected to the state legislature in California, back in the 1970s. Working with him and the Japanese community in the Gardena area was useful in learning how to work with Japanese people. I also learned press work while working for Bannai, which also came in handy in later years.

5. We’ll wrap up by asking you what are your future writing plans, and what sort of future do you see for Godzilla here in the Americas after the critical and commercial success of the new film? And thank you once again!
At present, I am just writing for my blog, Armand’s Rancho Del Cielo and contributing to Monster Island News and working on an updated The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide To Japan.

It appears that Godzilla is a hit and plans are in progress for a sequel. I am guessing that Godzilla as a franchise in America will last about 2-3 movies, provided they don’t muck it up. If they have engaging stories, interesting monster foes for Godzilla to fight and great special effects, the franchise should last several movies. Why not? This may also spur Toho to get back into the kaiju game again. But I think the days of suitmation may be over, or more limited in Japan. Toho demolished their Big Pool during the past ten years, so they will probably go the CGI route.
I think they should let Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. carry the “Godzilla ball” for now and concentrate on reviving their other monsters such as Rodan and Mothra with a combination of models, suits and CGI. Or come up with new monster characters.

Thanks Armand! You can check out Armand’s Rancho Del Cielo for informative updates on Godzilla fandom, California politics, and more, and order The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide to Japan from his website or at Amazon Kindle!

 

Dissecting Divergent

Dissecting Divergent

 

Entertaining yet not quite fulfilling, intelligent but underdeveloped, and having provoked an extremely broad range of critical reaction without any clear consensus, Divergent certainly lives up to its title in terms of both its internal contradictions and audience reception. It’s enjoyable enough to merit a viewing and it provides an intriguing fictional society and setting that feels genuinely lived-in. Additionally, the social factions that form the crux of the story’s plot and themes are quite interesting in the way they represent contemporary social and ideological divisions as well as moral virtues. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the individual characters in the film, however likeable some of the actors playing them are, and the movie leaves too many questions about its themes and setting frustratingly unanswered. Continue reading “Dissecting Divergent”

Movie Review: Science At Work

Movie Review: Science At Work

The late, great Frederick Pohl opened Chasing Science, his wonderful memoir of scientific tourism, with an account of his visits to America’s national laboratories. Although the majority work under heavy security there is one lab, as Pohl notes, that always welcomes visitors with open arms: Fermilab in DuPage County, Illinois. It is there that the Top Quark was discovered, solidifying the Standard Model and establishing it firmly as the touchstone of modern physics, and it remained the country’s leading particle physics facility until the recent shutdown of the Tevatron accelerator. Even so, it remains a major research center as well as a popular tourist attraction in the greater Chicago area, and the recent documentary Science at Work provides a virtual tour of the lab for those of us who have wanted to but never had a chance to pay a visit.

 

As its title implies, Science at Work is a film about scientists on the job, chronicling a full work week at Fermilab spotlighting a new project on each day, usually emphasizing one scientist in particular who will serve as sort of a tour guide on the journey. Many of the segments open with the scientists at home, saying goodbye to their children, or bringing them to the lab, either to its day care center or as part of a “Bring Your Sons and Daughters To Work” day. Some drive to work, others ride their bikes. All come off as warm, friendly and gregarious, the type of people you’d love to have as your neighbor; the filmmakers have done an excellent job of choosing their interview subjects. These are precisely the people needed to communicate science to a Middle-American audience, but whose voices have been largely muted until now. One gets the sense that while Fermilab might be in Chicago’s backyard, its values are still those of DuPage and the surrounding counties (Naperville, the largest city in the area, was once named one of the most conservative cities in the country), with a deeply-ingrained sense of hard work, fair play and entrepreneurship incorporated into the scientific ethos. As one researcher puts it, when you’re employed at Fermilab, you become part of a family, and that familial atmosphere really comes through to the film’s credit.

 

Fermilab was founded and designed in part by its first director, Wyoming native Robert R. Wilson, who incorporated much of his home state into the lab’s prairie terrain; it is as well-known for its herds of buffalo as it is for its scientific work. Appropriately enough for a lab founded by a native of the tiny community of Frontier, Wyoming, Fermilab’s research focuses on what it describes as three fundamental Frontiers of Particle Physics. As eloquently explained in the documentary by senior scientist Herman White and cosmologist Craig Hogan, these are the Cosmic Frontier, which studies naturally-occurring particle interactions to gain a better understanding of dark energy and dark matter, among other phenomena; the Energy Frontier, which involves colliding and accelerating particles at high energies to generate new particles and recreate the early state of the universe under controlled conditions; and finally the Intensity Frontier, which probes matter and subatomic processes with intense muon and neutrino beams (a method developed by the lab’s second director, Leon Lederman, for which he won the Nobel Prize). Each Frontier gets spotlighted by the film, with physicists actively engaged in each project explaining the science behind them. Particularly entertaining is Intensity Frontier physicist Bonnie Fleming’s explanation of neutrino flavor-changing which uses ice cream as a metaphor, complete with Sesame Street-style animation. The eloquence and down-to-earth style of the interview subjects combined with the film’s incorporation of simple animation and graphics go a long way in making the complexity of particle physics accessible to the novice viewer, and if the subject matter is overly simplified, it will at least make most viewers curious enough to learn more about it.

 

Although an entertaining and thought-provoking documentary, Science at Work is also a flawed film, and the main flaw is reflected in the title. Near the end, one scientist cheerfully remarks that contrary to what you may think, you don’t need to be a genius to be a scientist, just a hard worker and rigorous thinker. Unfortunately, this process of hard work and rigorous thought isn’t really visible on screen. We see them explain it, and we see snippets of the scientists at the job, but we never really get a feeling as to how much effort, mental and physical, that the scientists must put into their work. Nor, for that matter, are all the frustrations that arise from experiments not working, machinery breaking down, mismeasurements, and all the rest documented, although they surely must have occurred during filming! Although we put so much emphasis on getting young people interested in science and in choosing STEM careers, if we aren’t also realistic and depict the hard work and long hours, as well as the particular frustrations of such a career, we are only being unfair to them. Additionally, even though we are told that a majority of those who work at Fermilab are actually not scientists but engineers, machinists, and others who keep the equipment running and in order, and although we see them briefly, we never actually hear from them. They are as much part of the endeavor of discovery as the scientists themselves and it would have been nice to have heard their voices as well. In a longer film-the documentary runs a mere forty-two minutes-there might have been space for them but time and money are as much a bugbear for documentary film as they are for its narrative counterpart.

 

A more personal quibble is that we don’t get enough of Fermilab itself in the film. Robert Wilson, a gifted architect and sculptor as well as a great scientist, was determined to make sure his lab stood out from the drab dreariness of most government buildings, and although it would be the famously gregarious second director Leon Lederman who would make the lab a public attraction, the attractiveness of the lab with its futuristic buildings and modernist sculptures dotting the landscape, was Wilson’s idea. There’s a beautiful shot early on of one of the scientists bicycling through one Wilson’s sculptures, appropriately called Broken Symmetry, and the movie could have used more images like this, but instead, we frustratingly mostly only see bits and pieces of the lab’s layout and design instead of witnessing it in full. A sequence where a tabletop model of the lab is used to explain the main collider ring winds up being almost comical, like a parody of a scene in a James Bond film where the villain explains his master plan, and only amplifies the frustration of not seeing exteriors of the device up-close and personal.

 

 

A just-released documentary called Particle Fever has been receiving much Internet buzz as well as widespread critical acclaim. Dealing with the hunt for the Higgs Boson conducted at CERN and the lives of the scientists involved in the search, it sounds like the type of film I’m always anxious to see, but alas, isn’t opening anywhere near me. Fortunately, thanks to YouTube, I was able to instead watch Science at Work. Just as Fermilab and its achievements shouldn’t be forgotten in the shadow of the Higgs, this dearly made, relatively short film shouldn’t be overlooked with all the hype surrounding Particle Fever and in spite of its flaws, it merits a viewing in order to get to know the people who are furthering our understanding of the universe. Even if it is too cursory to provide a thorough exploration of the lab, it at least encourages our appreciation of those explorers who work within it, and will leave you wanting to learn more. And wanting to learn more is what being a scientist is all about.

This review is dedicated to the memory of Joanna Ploeger, friend, scholar and mentor.

 

Movie Review: Mood Indigo

Movie Review: Mood Indigo

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Some movies bend the rules or try to break them. This movie stretches them, squeezes them, then shapes them until it has formed its own set of narrative and visual rules. It is a film that could only be made in France, and even then, only by Michel Gondry. Of course it has cinematic antecedents of its own, almost all Gallic in origin as well; it feels at times that we are watching a three-way collaboration between the great talents of Jean Cocteau, Rene Clair and Jacques Tati. All the same, it belongs to that unique cinematic niche Gondry occupies, one that fellow countryman Jean-Paul Jeunet, frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman and fellow acclaimed music video director and Kaufman cohort Spike Jonze inhabit as well, a distinctively modern cinema of the surreal. But Gondry bests all of them in his ability to take advantage of the full range of imaginative opportunities offered by contemporary cinema. He reminds me of the great Czech animator and director Karel Zeman in his ability and readiness to make use of as many available special effects techniques as possible, and to use them as imaginatively and creatively as he can. And Zeman himself was profoundly influenced by the pioneering work of George Melies, so once again, we return to France.

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Simply calling Mood Indigo a fantasy film is insufficient; whereas Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was seriocomic science fiction romance with fantasy trappings, Mood Indigo is a seriocomic romantic fantasy with science fiction trappings. Gondry’s film intersects genres and synthesizes them to the needs of its themes and storyline, creating a world of its own in the process. It exists in a universe with its own laws that seems to occupy the present day and obviously has a connection with the known historical past, but much of the imagery seems borrowed from the artwork of European science fiction magazines and comic books. Tiny robotic  doorbells scurry across floors, the police ride giant tank-like vehicles that resemble Imperial Snow Walkers designed by Robida, and lovers ride over the clouds in a Jetsons-like sky car manipulated by a crane. A TV chef personally crawls out of the screen to offer cooking lessons and the finished meals seem to be alive, the legs of dancers elongate like those of Reed Richards and they all float in the air in a crowded ballroom, and a mouse (actually an actor in a costume that seems to have been left over from a children’s TV show) that lives in a tiny simulacrum of the protagonist’s own home  behaves like a silent Greek chorus. These are but a few of the wonders that we witness in just the first half hour; the entire film is full of visual invention in every corner of each frame, and the effort put in by Gondry and his crew completely pays off. There is a tendency among modern viewers to grouse about the so-called lack of “realism” in special effects but what they really mean is that think that they should fulfill their expectations of what they consider to be realistic. Our expectations of realism are turned upside-down in Mood Indigo because we never know what to expect; it’s a universe where seemingly anything goes and there’s a new surprise in every scene.

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There is a plot, and I suppose I should discuss it as well. It is less in danger of being overwhelmed by the special effects than being overwhelmed by the sheer charisma of the exceptional cast Gondry has assembled. Romain Duris is Colin, a member of the discreetly charming bourgeoisie, living off a hefty inheritance in a spacious apartment that seems to have been rented from above Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. His best friend is the intellectual Chick (Gad Elmaleh), a disciple of pop philosopher Jean-Sol Partre, although his closest confidante is Nicholas (the marvelous Omar Sy, fresh off his triumphant turn in Les Intouchables), his lawyer and live-in chef. Colin spends his idle hours tinkering, his latest invention being a cross between a piano and an automated bartender that mixes drinks according to the notes you play. Colin’s life seems to be perfect, but he finally realizes something is missing in it when Chick announces he is engaged to the lovely Alise (Aissa Maiga); he also needs love in his life as well. He finds it when Nicholas introduces him to the equally lovely Chloe (Audrey Tautou, as beguiling as she was in Amelie, but this time more mature and a touch more sophisticated). They are soon married, but on their honeymoon, the petal of a water lily wafts through an open window. Chloe inhales it, and soon, the flower starts to grow within her lung, imperiling her. Colin is forced to actually go to work for the first time in his life as her health care costs escalate, and he takes a variety of very odd jobs. And as Chloe’s health breaks down, so do the relationships between the various characters.

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Many in the audience where I first saw the film (at the Windsor International Film Festival) were disappointed with the way the film changed direction from the bright, giddy opening act to a more serious, but no less visually audacious middle before reaching a somber conclusion. It did not proceed in the direction that they thought it should, and I assume they would have wished that if, it had at least not retained the cheery ambiance of the first half hour, to have at least tried to revive it towards the end. I’m reminded of the classic Black Orpheus (which despite being made on location in Brazil and having all its dialogue spoken in Portuguese, was made by a French director and production company), which opens with the dazzling and colorful images of the Carnival in Rio, and ends in tragedy for all amidst the squalor and desolation of the “real” city. But there is reason to Gondry’s rhythm. If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was about our memories of love, Mood Indigo is about our actual experience of it, and Gondry is not using cinematic tricks and special effects simply as an excuse to show off, but to visualize the actual feelings and emotional states of his characters as they proceed through the entire arc of their relationships. It makes sense that the movie opens in vibrant color, only to have it fade gradually as the running time elapses, much as love itself, no matter how intense or genuine, abates over time. Mood Indigo may take place in a surreal world of fantastic imagery, but it deals with genuine emotions and situations that are part of most people’s real-world lives to begin with. It is a movie about genuine love and commitment, both romantic and platonic, the prices we pay and the risks we take for it, and tragedy, pain and loss are all very much a part of the entire experience. Under these circumstances, I cannot blame my fellow audience members for not liking the outcome of the film; how often do our own romances and relationships manage to completely meet our expectations as well?

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As I said earlier, this is a movie that could only be made in France, and beyond what it has to say about human emotions, it has also something profound to say about French society. Even amidst all the special effects and set decorations imposed on it, the real Paris is always visible and right beneath it, and the film aims to strip social illusions about real life in the city and nation even as it generates visual ones. The true turning point of the film is not when the water lily enters Chloe’s lungs but at the wedding ceremony, when the minister (a hilarious turn by Vincent Rottiers) pompously and solemnly declares at the end of the vows “let us hope they live a life free of work and ill health” (or words to that effect). It is at that point we learn that the real world and its concerns are a part of this universe as well, and the characters will have to deal with them. It is difficult for me, as an outsider, to say exactly what political and social messages the film might be trying to convey, although I’ll do my best at interpreting them. It is tempting for me to say that it is criticizing a French society that has become so dependent on a social safety net that its members are at a loss when they need to find work, but it is more likely that it is critical of a mixed-model health care system that fails to intervene for its most vulnerable citizens, and that there can be no freedom in wealth without security. The depiction of the relationship between the three male leads also has social relevance. Although Colin regards Chick as his best friend, he should really regard the loyal and dutiful Nicholas as being such, especially as the movie progresses and Chick starts to become so obsessed with his favorite philosopher that he forgets he even has friends to begin with. Nicholas, meanwhile, never wavers in his concerns for his friends even when he becomes helpless in aiding them, literally aging years in one day from all his efforts. While some of the movie’s social commentary is open to debate, it is indisputable that the film is critical of the lack of gratitude the upper and middle classes have towards working people and public servants. Considering their efforts on their behalf, the very least they deserve is their friendship.

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I have not read the original novel by Boris Vian upon which the film is based, so I cannot say if any social commentary in it has been carried over,  but Gondry has made the bold move of allowing the language of the novel to mold cinematic reality. It is an approach to cinema that very much recalls how French philosophes have approached the subject of language and social reality, and appropriately, both the French intelligentsia and the peculiar celebrity culture surrounding them also comes under critical examination. Although clearly the name “Jean-Sol Partre” is supposed to invoke Jean-Paul Sartre, as portrayed by Phillipe Torrenton, he more closely resembles a cyborg version of Michel Foucault, and his “philosophy” is little more than crackpot gibberish that nonetheless has a very hypnotic draw on his audiences, making him come off as a cross between Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Žižek. As Richard Weaver reminded us, ideas have consequences, even if they make no sense, and the consequences result in tragedy not just for the philosopher’s adherents but the philosopher himself.

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Mood Indigo was my third-favorite film among those I saw at the Windsor International Film Festival (after Gabrielle and The Great Beauty), and hopefully, it will soon get the wide North American release it deserves. It will also hopefully be more representative of what Gondry has in store for us in the future than The Green Hornet, which will instead be remembered as a mere aberration in his career, his own personal 1941 or Land of the Pharaohs. With Mood Indigo, Gondry definitively establishes himself as one of our best and most imaginative directors, someone who combines style and substance to create a cinema that is distinctly his own.

 

Movie Review: The Double

Movie Review: The Double

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The doppelganger myth is a venerable one that has frequently surfaced in literature and occasionally in the movies. The most famous cinematic treatment was probably one of the earliest (if one excludes the many trick films that duplicated their actors), The Student of Prague, and the legend also provided Roger Moore with one of his better parts in little-seen sleeper The Man Who Haunted Himself. Surprisingly, the premise seems to have occurred more frequently on television, possibly because it lends itself to dramatic conflicts that are best resolved in the half-hour or hour long format. Most notable among them are two superb episodes of the Twilight Zone, “Mirror Image” and “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room,” the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “The Curious Case of Mr. Pelham” and one of the better episodes of the revived Twilight Zone, “Shatterday,” adapted by Harlan Ellison from his outstanding short story and featuring a fine performance by Bruce Willis. The Double, written and directed by Richard Ayoade from a novella by Fyodyr Dostoyevsky, and starring Jesse Eisenberg, ably demonstrates that the inherent dramatic promise and conflicts in the doppelganger premise are well extendable to feature length, providing one of the best such cinematic treatments of the idea to date. Continue reading “Movie Review: The Double”

Movie Review: Escape From Tomorrow

Movie Review: Escape From Tomorrow

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My mother and sister were once trapped for two and a half hours in the “It’s A Small World” attraction at Disney World. I hadn’t a clue what their ordeal was like until I suffered through Escape From Tomorrow, which at least was an hour shorter .

This is the type of movie that gets so much attention for the story behind its production and its so-called “audacity” that the poor quality of the finished product becomes almost irrelevant. Roy Abramsohn, a sort of poor man’s Steven Carrell, is Jim, who learns that he has lost his job on his last day of vacations at Walt Disney World. This is just the beginning of his terrible, no-good, just-plain-awful day, as he accompanies his wife (in the film’s lone piece of genuine wit, he describes her as a cross between Emily Dickinson and Tina Fey; as played by Elena Schuber, she’s like a shriller version of Teri Garr) and two young children (a son and daughter, both as dully written and one-dimensional as children in the movies usually are) for what he hopes will be a relaxing time but as almost always turns out in the movies, things don’t go his way. Spotting two cheery teenage girls from France, also in search of amusements (apparently, Euro Disney wouldn’t do) triggers a strange obsession in him. He soon starts following them, disregarding his family totally. That’s when the trouble starts; he soon starts drinking heavily and begins to see the darkness behind the sunny facade of the fantasy world, and all sorts of strange and awful things-and strange and awful people-start to surround him. He also encounters a would-be Witch with a hypnotic crystal, discovers the secret beneath Spaceship Earth, and maybe other potentially interesting things happen, but I’m too bored even just thinking about the movie to care at this point.

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Sure, it all starts promisingly enough, especially in an early hallucinatory scene in the aforementioned “It’s a Small World” ride, where the cheery marionettes suddenly turn into grinning monsters, and the protagonist starts to see his wife and children as distortions of their true selves. If the movie had continued in this vein, being something like a modern take on Carnival of Souls or Night Tide, both of which made effective use of actual amusement park location filming to create memorable tales of characters caught between mundane reality and nightmarish fantasy, it might have been worth watching. Unfortunately, writer-director Randy Moore has made two fatal mistakes. One is trying to cram too many story ideas at once instead of maintaining a coherent narrative, an error all too common among independent, first-time directors who are also their own screenwriters, with no one there to tell them cut. It should have been decided early on whether or not the film was to be science-fiction satire, black comic horror, or devoid of fantastic elements to begin with; nothing in it seems to gel or fit together right. In the only other really memorable sequence, Jim finds himself imprisoned in a sterile laboratory hidden beneath Epcot Center, and subjected to tests by a mad German (of course) scientist who is himself not what he seems. It’s a scene reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, itself an overrated “classic.” If the movie had continued along with this particular story thread all the way to end, or better yet, had been the main plotline from the very beginning (using the amusement park setting the same way Godard used the modernist architecture of Paris to create his future world), then this ride might have been worth the price of admission. The sloppy and amateurish narrative construction extends to other areas as well. We are also somehow expected to believe that all the events and terrible things that befall Jim occur in a single day, yet anyone who has been at Walt Disney World even once will pick up immediately that it is utterly impossible for this to happen. There is the implication that the fantastic elements are all just a hallucination, but it is all far too vague to be certain, and far too frustrating to care about. As annoying as movies that blend reality with their lead character’s subjective fantasy and expect us to figure out which is which can be, movies too sloppy to care are even more irritating.

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Even worse, Moore has given us a nominal hero who is not only as frequently boring as the film itself, but is even more repulsive than the often unpleasant imagery the film proffers when not filming amusement park attractions. When Jim first starts following the two teenagers, it’s creepy, not funny. When his Humbert Humbert-ish obsession with trailing them compels him to endanger his son not once but twice (the first time by forcing him to go on Space Mountain him against his protests; the poor lad winds up losing his lunch whereas I merely lost my glasses) all sympathy is gone. Utter disgust is the only response when he abandons his daughter for some afternoon delight with the Witch (in a particularly vile move by the director, they leave their kids in the adjacent room while they have their quickie) and when he gets sickeningly drunk at Epcot Center, in wince-inducing scenes apparently intended to be funny. He does not deserve to be a father, much less a lead character. I don’t know if Jim’s ultimate fate was intended to funny or sad or both, but it is pathetic and suitably disgusting, the type of gross-out scene that indie films seem to indulge in with the excuse that they are being “transgressive.” The final shot is another classic example of a twist ending that Stevie Wonder could probably see coming from three miles away.

 

Supposedly, Escape From Tomorrow is intended to be some sort of social commentary on consumer culture and the way in which mass entertainment winds up suffocating our lives. If there was indeed any attempt at a coherent message on the subject of consumerism, the movie has completely failed in that regard. If it was trying to be anti-entertainment, it has succeeded completely.

 

Gravity: The Science Fiction Film in Free Fall

Gravity: The Science Fiction Film in Free Fall

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Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity has received an exceptional amount of critical acclaim for a science fiction film, more so for any other I can remember since Peter Weir’s The Truman Show.   This may be because, as with Weir’s film, many don’t recognize it as belonging to the genre. Yes, it takes place in outer space, the most familiar setting for the science fiction film, but since it (like the 1969 film Marooned) deals with events that could conceivably and possibly happen in the immediate future, it’s probably not unanimously regarded as such by mainstream critics, who don’t realize that the depiction of possible futures is precisely one of the main goals of science fiction. That may be why I’ve found myself less enthusiastic about the film than so many others after viewing it. As was the case with the wildly overrated Moon (2009), over-familiarity with the genre seems to greatly diminish my ability appreciate what others find to be so novel; on a purely visual and cinematic level, it’s certainly a tremendous achievement on the part of Cuaron and his crew, but on a story level, Gravity is (no pun intended) somewhat of a letdown. Not only will it also be overly familiar to other fans of written science fiction, but those well-versed in its cinematic equivalent will also find themselves recognizing various visual and story motifs. In addition to the aforementioned Marooned, everything from the rescue-with-oxygen-tank scene from Destination Moon to the horrifying image of the burnt-up skull face of a freshly-killed astronaut peering out its helmet in Riders to the Stars (also the consequence of a collision with space debris) seems to echo throughout the film. Even the very premise of the film itself evokes a key scene from a guilty pleasure of mine, the 1954 movie Conquest of Space, which coincidentally featured an appearance from George Clooney’s aunt Rosemary but was considerably less acclaimed, with no less than Forry Ackerman calling it “The Bomb of The Decade”.  This story could just as easily been cut to an hour or half-hour format, and then presented as an episode of the early Sixties show Men Into Space.  To be certain, a quite gripping and involving film has been built from a standard storyline; however, the almost unanimous, at times hyperbolic acclaim the film has been receiving need to be tempered by informed criticism.

 

Some science fiction fans have compared Gravity‘s storyline to Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “Kaleidoscope,” but it actually bears a closer resemblance to some of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic short stories such as “Breaking Strain,” “Summertime on Icarus” and “Transit of Earth,” as well as the vignettes that make up The Other Side of the Sky. In these stories, Clarke tried to credibly and convincingly depict the sort of life-and-death situations future astronauts might encounter “out there,” and they more often than not involved problem-solving based on the application of scientific knowledge and practical engineering. A more important conceptual breakthrough was Clarke’s focus on the personal experience of space exploration: The thoughts and emotional states of astronauts as they work their way through technical crises is a primary concern of these stories, many of which are written in the first person, and the story and presentation of Gravity is very much in this vein. The film is not so much about outer space than it is about the lead character’s experience of it; nearly every directorial choice reminds us that this story is being told from the perspective of Sandra Bullock’s astronaut. Remarkably, the sort of premise most science fiction writers would restrict to the size of a short story or at best, a novelette, is effectively expanded to the length of a feature film, and one of the best aspects of Gravity is the efficiency of the plot, so that it still feels like a short story in terms of time expended. A lesser director than Cuaron would have dwelled endlessly on shots of the empty void or used a succession of quick cuts in a desperate attempt to keep the film moving, but since Cuaron rightfully views both visual effects and the 3-D Imax format as tools for telling his story instead of accessories to spectacle, he uses them to involve us so deeply in it that we don’t notice the passing of time. The opening sequence is especially bravura, as the camera, in a seemingly unbroken five-minute cut, moves across various characters working on the surface of the space station, fully establishing a credible setting and immersing us in such a manner that we fully embrace the illusion of being in a zero-gravity environment. Particularly important to a film where the characters spend nearly the entire duration in free fall, Cuaron is one of the few directors to recognize both the importance and usefulness of camera movement in the 3-D format, and there’s also a thematic significance to his doing do so, as a means of emphasizing their isolation in an environment where movement is free in all three dimensions.

 

Equally important as Cuaron’s direction in selling the story is the performance of Sandra Bullock in the lead. Some viewers may find the life-and-death situation she finds herself to be in this film to be not unlike that featured in her breakout film Speed, and her astronaut can be seen as a more mature version of her character from the earlier movie. While this time she may only be trying to save her own life instead of a busload of passengers, she faces even greater challenges, not just physical (in Speed, she merely had to pilot a bus linearly across a horizontal plane; this time, she must fully navigate her way through three-dimensional vector space!) but psychological and emotional as well, and she must prove that she has not just fulfilled the survival training expected of her, but what she expects of herself as well. It’s a remarkable, cerebral performance, and Bullock especially handles herself well in those long silent passages where we are only supposed to be able to understand her thoughts and emotions through the subtlest facial expressions or body movements.

 

It’s a shame then, that so much time is expended on the far less interesting and more poorly handled character played by George Clooney. It’s not entirely his fault, as he’s handed most of the film’s clunker lines and the character as written comes off as overbearing and patronizing, but his performance still comes off as overly smug and phoned-in. Another actor (maybe Gary Sinise or Clive Owen, the star of Cuaron’s Children of Men) might have been able to give the veneer of professionalism without pomposity, but better yet, the character could have been written out entirely, since he’s not really essential to the film. Not only would that have allowed the film to concentrate more fully on Bullock’s character, and charted her development, her survival strategies and inner conflicts,  but it would have eliminated the film’s absolute worst scene. I will not say anything more about it except that the audience I was with first laughed at the stupidity of it before they realized what was happening, and when they did realize it, they collectively groaned that the movie had stooped to not just one of the worst cliches in the business but one of the worst cheats in cinema, one that completely destroyed the illusion of real time the film had built up to that point.

 

Of course, without the Clooney character, the film would have run even shorter than its ninety-minute running time, and an already swift-moving film would have felt even briefer. Mainstream critics have so fallen over each other in praising the visual audacity and innovations in Cuaron’s film, that they haven’t taken the time to examine the story very closely. As science fiction, it’s very ordinary; it would have been sent into most editor’s slush piles years ago, although it would have certainly worked as a chapter in a larger novel or novella. Even though the film will undoubtedly lose much of its visual impact outside of the 3-D and Imax formats, it should probably be screened in film and science fiction literature classes just to illustrate the difficulties and challenges in making a movie in the genre, and the differences between the cinematic and the literary art forms. A key example of the difficulty can be seen in how the movie tries to compensate for the complete absence of sound in its “exterior” shots. While it is certainly admirable that Cuaron and his crew made this commitment to scientific realism,  composer Steven Price has seemingly tried to compensate for the lack of sound by creating one of the most annoying scores of recent years, punctuating every emotion and movement with overbearing intensity. It’s nonetheless certainly a relief to find a science fiction film that takes its science seriously. What a vast difference over the awful Mission to Mars, which opened with a scene where the illusory “Martian Face” was revealed as an actual sculpted visage and went downhill from there, accumulating a litany of errors and “artistic licenses” (including loud sounds in the empty vacuum of space), hurtling towards an idiotic ending that pandered to the Intelligent Design crowd!

 

Although Gravity may indicate that film techniques and technology have advanced to the point where cinematic science fiction can finally approximate its print equivalent, I would hesitate before taking it and the recent Europa Report as harbingers of a new dawn of hard science fiction movies. In the late Nineties, I had great expectations for things to come with the likes of The Arrival, Contact, Gattaca and Dark City, only to find the genre sink back into the morass of brain-dead action films. Even as film technology advances, the science fiction cinema’s future will be limited by the stories the filmmakers themselves choose to tell. Gravity is a superior example of filmed science fiction, but it is not the space film to end all space films some claim it is.